For its 2013 model year, Lexus gave the GS 350 a fierce look and performance options that make it one of the best-handling Lexus models, and let it begin to approach the sport levels achieved by the German competition. Catching the eye first of all, however, is the tremendous 12.3-inch LCD sitting in the dashboard.
Beyond the main menu screen, this whopping display shows its information in a perpetual split, using about two-thirds of the area for maps, destination input, audio selection, and phone calls. The other third shows current audio, phone, climate control, and fuel economy.
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Lexus launched its mouselike controller for in-cabin electronics a few years ago, and this system was refined for the GS 350. Where before it felt like a joystick, now it slides around more like a mouse. Previously, the pointer could move anywhere on the screen, but now it more securely snaps to the onscreen buttons, making it easier to use while driving.
Lexus also took away the Enter buttons, previously mounted on either side of the controller, replacing that function with a push down on the controller. I found the controller a little too sensitive, as it too easily jumped to a different button when I tried to press down. Looking into the settings, there was no way to reduce the sensitivity, but it was possible to raise the level of haptic response, so the controller would be less likely to skip off a selected button. The controller also felt too much like a cheap, plastic mouse; I would expect more heft for switchgear in a luxury car.
Along with the controller upgrade, Lexus improved its voice command. Pressing the voice command gave me a lot of top-level options for navigation, phone, and audio. I could place a call by saying the name of a person in my phone's contact list, or request music from an attached iPod or USB drive by saying the artist name or album. Entering a destination still required saying the city, street name, and number individually, instead of as one string.
Despite the large screen, Lexus' navigation remains unchanged from that of prior model years. Maps, stored on a hard drive, only offer 2D views. The system uses traffic data from satellite to avoid jams, but does not offer text-to-speech for route guidance. The system offers quite a few ways to enter addresses, including the new eDestination feature, which lets you send destinations from a PC through the Lexus telematics system.
More impressive is the system's integration with Lexus' Enform apps system. Enform is very much like the Toyota Entune system. It requires either an Android phone or iPhone running the Enform app. Android phones can connect over Bluetooth, but the iPhone must be plugged into the USB port. And as I have found with recent Toyota cars, my iPhone 3GS would only connect to the system sporadically, although the iPhone 4 and 4S seem to connect consistently.
In the GS 350, the Enform apps complement the data brought in through satellite radio. Along with the aforementioned traffic information, satellite radio provides weather forecasts, gas prices, stock prices, and sports scores. Enform offers well-known apps such as Bing search, OpenTable, and Yelp. Lexus could do a better job of putting these different apps into a uniform interface, as a driver doesn't really need to differentiate between apps powered by satellite and ones that get data over a connected smartphone.
Of the Enform apps, I found Yelp the most useful. The navigation system's own stored database of restaurants and other points of interest came up short on a couple of occasions. Yelp does a very good job of noting when a restaurant or other listing has closed, and it provides much more information about each listing than the point-of-interest database. Best of all, the system let me input the address of any listing as a destination in the navigation system, directly from its Yelp page.
Enform also includes Pandora and iHeartRadio, two apps that work as audio sources for the stereo. They complement an already robust set of audio sources that includes a USB port for iPods and thumbdrives, and satellite and HD Radio. I was impressed by how the system analyzed the MP3 tracks on my 8GB thumbdrive, letting me browse by artist and album.
CNET's car came with the standard audio system, using 12 speakers and 5.1 surround processing for very good sound quality. This system is well-balanced, producing distinct sound with good depth. I was pleased with its production of background percussion instruments on some tracks, and vocals came through with a pleasant richness. Better would have been the optional Mark Levinson audio system, which uses an 835-watt amp and 17 Green Edge speakers. Toyota started deploying these premium speakers in cars last year; they're supposed to consume less power than speakers of equivalent quality.
The stereo gets some competition from the engine, which makes a delightfully loud purr with the gas pedal floored. The 3.5-liter V-6 in the GS 350 is the same as what Lexus put in the IS 350, and uses an interesting mix of port and direct injection. At low speeds, the engine uses its port-injection system, less efficient but quieter, while at higher acceleration it switches to the direct injectors, delivering more power. The extra noise of the direct injection gets swamped by the overall road noise at higher speed. Or so the thinking goes.
Other automakers are increasingly going to direct-injection engines for the increased efficiency, and dealing well with the extra engine noise. Lexus should lose the complexity of this system and just go to straight direct injection.
This engine produces 306 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque, generally satisfactory but at times not enough to get the nearly 2-ton GS 350 out of its own way. CNET's car came with all-wheel drive, an option that adds about $3,000 to the total price, and the F Sport package, which brings in an extensive amount of performance gear, including an adaptive suspension.
A large dial on the console changes the drive modes between Eco, Normal, Sport, and Sport Plus. In Eco mode, the accelerator is detuned, a helper designed to force slower starts, and therefore better fuel economy. The EPA estimates put the GS 350 at 19 mpg city and 26 mpg highway, but I rarely saw the average fuel economy rise above 20 mpg. After a week of driving, its average came out to 19.4 mpg. A couple of extra gears in the transmission should raise the average.
The Sport and Sport Plus settings are new features for Lexus, and not as aggressive as similarly labeled settings in competitors' cars. Put the GS 350 in Sport mode and the six-speed automatic transmission holds its gears longer, and downshifts aggressively in response to braking. Put it into Sport Plus, and the suspension takes on a more rigid character. The GS 350's Sport Plus does not go quite so far as BMW's similar mode, which changes the traction control profile.
Taking advantage of the full Sport Plus setting, I enjoyed the performance of the GS 350. Letting the transmission shift automatically, it held high engine revs as I pounded the gas pedal in the straights, letting the engine sound off with its satisfying growl. Getting into the brakes ahead of a turn, I found the transmission downshifted fast, keeping the revs up so I had power through the corner.
In the turns, the GS 350 gripped well, letting me keep a good amount of speed. The all-wheel drive must have also been doing its job, helping the front wheels claw for some grip to aid the overall handling, but I couldn't really feel the effect. With the rigid suspension setting, the car tried to remain flat, but there was still slight roll, the car's weight being too much for the suspension to hold back. I never really got a feeling of rotation in the turns.
A few other problems with the GS 350's performance made themselves known, suggesting it will never be a real track competitor. Getting close to the limits in the turns, it showed understeer, losing the responsive steering character it had at moderate speeds. And the engine just did not have enough oomph to push it convincingly out of the turns. Clearing an apex with a good straightaway ahead, I slammed the gas, but even with the revs well above 5,000 the engine didn't have the power for a fast exit.
In really tight corners, the car became terribly bound up by its own traction control. The system reacted to a lot of wheel turn by stripping out the power, leaving me with no response on the accelerator. That behavior may also be due to the all-wheel-drive system, as some can bind at steering lock. The all-wheel drive also has the effect of raising the car height half an inch, which will adversely affect handling.
With the dial set for Normal mode while cruising down the freeway, the GS 350 showed all the luxury I would expect from a Lexus. The ride quality is very nice, although prone to oscillation over wavy roads. Unlike typical Lexus power steering, where you can turn the wheel with one finger, the GS 350 feels more responsive and in touch with the road at all times.
To ease long-range driving, CNET's GS 350 came with radar-based adaptive cruise control. Typical for these systems, it let me choose among three following distances. It also brought the car to a complete stop when a vehicle in front of me slowed for a right turn off a highway.
The Lane Keeping Assistant was a nice complement to the adaptive cruise control. When I let the car drift over a lane line, it first beeped, then tugged the wheel to put the car back in its lane. The car also had a blind-spot detection system, lighting up an icon in the side-view mirror when another car was obscured by the GS 350's C pillar.
Lexus offers some real cutting-edge tech in the 2013 GS 350, from Enform app integration to the driver assistance systems. CNET's car lacked some of these features, such as the head-up display and the Mark Levinson audio system, but I was impressed by what it did have. The new voice command system is also very capable, and the sheer size of the LCD is impressive.
For performance, the GS 350 with the F Sport package sits near the IS F as one of the few Lexus models that can really hold its own in the corners. Fun on a country road, it lacks the power and handling at the limits to be taken seriously on the track. Fuel economy is also well short of impressive.
|Model||2013 Lexus GS 350|
|Power train||Direct- and port-injection 3.5-liter V-6, 6-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||19 mpg city/26 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||19.4 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional hard-drive-based, with integrated traffic data|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard, with contact list integration|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Pandora, iHeartRadio, Bluetooth audio streaming, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Standard 12-speaker system, optional Mark Levinson 835-watt 17-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, lane departure prevention, blind-spot detection, head-up display, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$60,824|